Shipbuilding Families: James Roland Bodden and sons (Rayal Brazley and Roland Archibald)

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Published 22nd April 2022, 2:17pm

Shipbuilding Families:  James Roland Bodden and sons (Rayal Brazley and Roland Archibald)

Our first article in this series featured the Arch’s Shipyard located off Harbour Drive (now Seafarers Way). In the early 1900s, a walk along the seafront from this shipyard, towards Dixie Cemetery would have taken you through George Town’s business district, with its several landmarks. There was the old Court House (including Government offices and the jail -- now the Cayman Islands National Museum), an array of shops, two churches, a school, the Turtle Market, sundial, seawall, Government warehouse, and Fort George. Scattered along the picturesque, narrow, unpaved road were private homes of varying styles, sizes and designs. Opposite the Court House was the Government Dock with its small boat (also interestingly called the ‘quarantine boat’) that carried Customs and Immigration officials out to inspect incoming and outgoing vessels, cargo and passengers. 

Early written records describe small dugout canoes lying on the sand in the little bays that dotted the shore. There were also careening places (areas along the shore where boats were tipped on their sides for scraping/cleaning), ships under construction and sail lofts (shed like structures attached to or beside houses where sails were cut and made), all testament to the thriving shipbuilding industry of that day. Venturing further north along North Church Street, you would leave the business/commercial area behind and enter more residential neighbourhoods with homes belonging to businessmen, shipwrights, sailmakers, fishermen, etc.  One of the best-known shipbuilders up north of town was Mr. James Roland Bodden, whose shipyard was next to his family home (located on the right side of the lane where Popo Jeb’s restaurant is today, across from Burger King on the waterfront).  Like other shipbuilding families, the skills of the trade were passed down from one generation to the next in the Bodden family. Similar to the Arch men, as the shipbuilding era drew to a close, the Bodden men went on to become distinguished builders of buildings in Grand Cayman. In fact, Rayal Brazley, affectionately known as ‘Captain Rayal’, the older son is credited with moving Cayman from the age of building in wood to building with cement (a topic for a future post).

However, it was about his shipbuilding years, working alongside his father and younger brother Roland and many others like them, that Captain Rayal spoke most fondly, in several 1970’s Nor’wester Magazine articles when he was interviewed in his 80s. From these and other sources, we share some details of the Bodden family genealogy, Capt. Rayal’s thoughts about local shipbuilding and names of most of the ships built by this family. 

Family Background – The oldest record of the paternal Bodden line dates back as early as the mid to late 1700s.  From birth and death records we learn that their great-great grandfather was a John Bodden ‘born in about’ 1760 and who died in 1809. Occupations of the males in their family tree were listed mainly as: mariner, fisherman, master of vessels, ships’ owner or shipbuilder. Rayal Brazley and Roland Archibald were the grandsons of John Clarke Bodden (b.1834, d.1891) and sons of James Roland Bodden (b.1858, d.1940). Their mother was Elizabeth ‘Liza’ Caroline Bodden and she and James Roland had five children: three daughters (Gerda Annetta (b, 1884), Blanche Lee, who became Mrs. Roddy Watler,(b.1890), and Mirindy Delma (as per birth certificate) OR Mirendy Delma(as per father’s will in Public Recorders Registry) (b. 1893) and two sons (Rayal b.1885, d.1976 and Roland b.1888, d.1968).  

Shipbuilding: From boyhood, shipbuilding would have been the formative influence on the Bodden brothers. As was customary, they each attended school from age 7 to 14 years. After completing their schooling (Rayal in 1899 and Roland in 1902), they apprenticed in their father’s shipyard learning the trade under the watchful eye of older master shipbuilders. During these years, it is likely that Rayal and Roland would have helped build some of these vessels built by their father. 

SHIPS BUILT BY JAMES ROLAND BODDEN (Father of Rayal and Roland)  - As per ‘The Shipping Registry’):

DEFENDER - 1902
VELOZ - 1904
MIZPAH - 1907
ADMIRAL COLLINGWOOD - 1908
EXPLORER - 1909
MAJESTIC (NO. 2) - 1910
U.V. DREW - 1913 
C. R [B?]. HEATH – 1915

Additional ships Capt. Rayal named as built by his father whose names do not appear on ‘The Shipping Registry’: GOVERNOR BLAKE, WHITE WATER and ALBATROSS.

In their late teens/early twenties, no doubt these young men perfecting their shipbuilding skills. As was the pattern of the day, both young men also began buildng their own family homes on land adjacent to their parents in preparation for marriage. After about twelve years as an apprentice,  Capt. Rayal’s name first appears in 1912 in the Shipping Registers as a ‘builder’ of numerous ships.  

EARLY SHIPS BUILT BY RAYAL (AND ROLAND) BODDEN:

BIRD - 1912 
LECHOF - 1913 
CAYMANIAN - 1914 
F.A. MARIE - 1915 
ATWOOD H. CARSON -1917 

It appears that they built one ship on average per year from 1912-1915. Although Roland is never listed as a separate shipwright by all accounts, he worked alongside/beside his brother on most if not all of the ships. 

Despite a steady demand for ships, like many Caymanians back then, this family became concerned about the sustainability of the industry as WW1 dragged on. So in 1917, James Roland and his two sons left Cayman and their young families behind, to explore job prospects in the United States. James Roland ran a shipyard in Tampa, building wooden three-masted schooners with his son Roland Archibald, as his right-hand man.  Capt. Rayal, on the other hand, took time to travel around working with the US Lighthouse service and later, on a passenger cargo ship. 

After three years away, they returned home in 1920, to begin an exciting new chapter of construction, transitioning  strictly from wooden ships to a church and public buildings out of cement, a first for Cayman.  (This phase will be covered in a separate story later). With Capt. Rayal taking the lead as project manager for these buildings, Roland continued to apply his skills to the wooden portions of each structure. In a March 1974 Nor’wester article, Capt. Rayal had this to say about brother Roland’s building skills, “Roland was one of the best ship’s carpenters ever produced in these islands. As proof, he added, “… just look at the doors of the Town Hall…he built them.” Indeed, generations later, the ceilings, and doors of Elmslie Memorial Church, the Town Hall (Constitution Hall), the Library, Post Office and Town Halls in all the districts provide us with what may be the only tangible examples of the skill and craftsmanship of Cayman’s shipbuilders of the 1900s to the 1930s. Even as their construction products transitioned , Capt. Rayal and Roland’s love for shipbuilding did not wane and the Bodden brothers continued, as opportunities arose, to build sailing ships, motor vessels and finally two minesweepers for the Royal Navy during WW11.  

LATER VESSELS BUILT BY RAYAL BODDEN: 

RADIO - 1923          
C.M. LAWRENCE - 1923         
L.M. ANDERSON - 1925                  
TRES HERMANOS - 1925                
ESFUERZO - 1927
CIMBOCO 1927- motor vessel
LOS AMIGOS -1928
ESCUPE FUEGO - 1929
LADY SLATER -1934 (largest ship built in Cayman at the time)
SPIC AND SPAN - 1968 (15’ sailing boat built for grandson)

ROLAND ARCHIBALD BODDEN built only one ship without Rayal, the R.L. HUSTLER, in 1931. This ship was co-owned with his cousin Lawrence (Lawrie) E. Bodden. Sadly, the ship and all aboard were “lost in Caribbean Sea on 21st October, 1940” as written in the Shipping Register, Vol. 2, 1923-1931. Several families experienced multiple family losses when the Hustler went down, which remains as one of Cayman’s greatest maritime tragedies.

In an article written in 1928, George Allan England (a visiting Saturday Evening Post journalist) described Cayman this way, at a time when shipbuilding was a central pillar of the economy:  

Nobody ever bothers much about anything on Grand Cayman… Nothing, that is, except their schooners.  Those are fashioned with a loving painstaking care almost unimaginable.  The Cayman builders, without engineering education, plans, specifications, blue prints or machinery, construct vessels that are unsurpassed for grace, workmanship, durability and speed.  If ever ships were handmade, it’s on Grand Cayman.  All that the builders have to guide them is a whittled-out model and a rough outline of the sails sketched on a piece of board.”  

He then went on to quote the proud shipbuilder Captain Rayal, who he found hard at work on a schooner being made of prized local wood … “Every timber, from the keel up, we work ‘em out with adz and saw.  Knees and all, they’re mahogany, ironwood, fiddlewood, pompero and such, growed right here on the island.  Hard as steel.  They’ll stand as long as the world lasts.”  

Unfortunately, for us, this was not the case. The many ships built by the Bodden brothers are now but a distant memory. All have been lost at sea, destroyed by fire or succumbed to the ravages of the environment.  Thankfully, the Cayman Islands National Archive has a sizeable collection of photographs, magazine articles and oral history accounts that helps connect us to this era of boatbuilding and seamanship to which Capt. Rayal and Roland Bodden contributed significantly, one of the proudest chapters in Cayman’s history.  

(In future articles we will look at some of the impressive land-based structures and the motor vessels and minesweepers built by Capt. Rayal for the Royal Navy in WW11, as well as some of the leading shipbuilders of the Sister Islands). 

Image: Lady Slater under construction c.1932. Courtesy: Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System. NOT TO BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE CAYMAN ISLANDS NATIONAL ARCHIVE.